Manthia Diawara

Manthia Diawara, Professor of Cultural Theory and Film at The European Graduate School / EGS.


Manthia Diawara (b. 1953) is a writer, cultural theorist, film director, and scholar from Mali based in the United States. He is Professor of Comparative Literature and Cinema at New York University, where he also heads the Institute of African American Affairs and the Africana Studies Program.

Born in Mali's capital Bamako, Manthia Diawara spent his youth in Guinea until 1964 when his family was expelled from the country by the regime of Ahmed Sékou Touré. While attending graduate school in Bamako, Diawara became involved in a student group called “The Rockers” and began listening to music by James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and Ike and Tina Turner. The group was opposed to the Vietnam War and apartheid and aligned itself with Black Power, the Black Panthers, and the Black Muslims. His heroes were Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali. Diawara went on to study literature in France and subsequently moved to the United States, where he completed his doctorate at Indiana University in 1985. He then taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the University of Pennsylvania, establishing the Africana Studies Program at NYU in 1992. In addition to founding the publishing house Black Renaissance, he is one of the leaders of the pressure group Transafrica alongside the actors Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover and the novelist Walter Mosley which supported the candidacy of Barack Obama for the presidency of the United States in 2008.

Manthia Diawara has written extensively on the films and literature of the Black Diaspora. He is the author of “African Cinema: Politics and Culture” (1992), “Black American Cinema: Aesthetics and Spectatorship” (1993), and “In Search of Africa” (1998). There he recounts his journey back to Africa as a married father of two living in the United States who has, in some ways, become more American than African but has not forgotten where he comes from. Using Jean-Paul Sartre's "Black Orpheus" as his point of departure, he shares his thoughts on the Africa of today and takes us on a philosophical exploration of African and African-American cultures. He has also published “We Won’t Budge: An African Exile in the World” (2003) and “African Film: New Forms of Aesthetics and Politics” (2010). Noting that conflict and constant change are the building blocks of culture, he highlights the permance of class structures in Africa and the lack of West African 'griots' (traveling poets or musicians and storytellers) celebrating the emancipation of women, the dissolution of caste, or power sharing.

One of Manthia Diawara's major works is “Bamako-Paris-New York” (2007), a comparison of social systems and race relations in America and France societies caught between identity politics and multiculturalism on the one hand, and individualism and universal rights on the other hand. As he uncovers and examines new fractures in French society, Diawara shows how conditions in the French suburbs are a clear indication that the country is becoming more like America, a society divided between rich and poor. In spite of his extensive studies, accomplishments, and titles, Manthia Diawara wonders if he has become the cosmopolitan man that he dreamed of being or if he is still a prisoner of a racial or ethnic group. He also offers a challenge to anyone who wishes to actively participate in the construction of adoptive identities as a way to escape the confines of their own culture.

In his writing, Manthia Diawara has reflected on the disillusionment following the independence of African countries led by figures such as Sékou Touré, Modibo Keita, Kwame Nkrumah, and Patrice Lumumba. He has also written about African-American intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Malcolm X; the hip-hop generation in the United States; and films by Sembéne Ousmane, Spike Lee, music, and fashion. In addition to criticizing Africanism as practiced by the 'white' centers of ethnic studies, his work has analyzed the informal sector in African economies and sought to redefine the phenomenon of racism in an increasingly globalized world.

In addition to his academic work, Manthia Diawara has collaborated with the renowned Kenyan writer Ngûgî wa Thiong'o in making the documentary film “Sembène: The Making of African Cinema” (1994). He has also directed the documentary “Rouch in Reverse” (1995), a critique of visual anthropology based on the work of the French filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch, one of the founders of cinéma vérité. More recently, Diawara has directed and produced "Bamako Sigi-Kan" (2003), an intimate look at his hometown.